Friday, November 13, 2009

The Glitz Question

At 12:05 PM (Eastern time) today Daniel J. Wakin used a post to the Arts Beat blog maintained by The New York Times to pose the inevitable question about Gustavo Dudamel. Actually, he framed the question within an observation made by Larry Livingston, Chairman of Instrumental Conducting at the Thornton School of Music of the University of Southern California. Having run through the usual encomia to praise Dudamel ("huge talent," a "breath of fresh air," "thrilling"), Livingston popped the question that was really on the mind of probably every musician striving for a career in (at least) the classical domain:

Do we need glitz to save classical music?

I give points to Wakin for recognizing that there is nothing new about glitz and for tracing it back at least as far as the popularity of Italian castrati (which I found a particularly appropriate example, since it was only two days ago that the BBC had a Newshour slot for an interview with Cecilia Bartoli about her new CD that celebrates, if that is the right word, the castrato repertoire). He might also have recalled Donald Francis Tovey's entry for "Music" in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (now available in the book The Forms of Music), in which he discussed the impact of "the efficiency of [the] press bureau" on the progress of music history, although that institution does not really emerge until the nineteenth century.

Wakin does not provide his own conclusive answer to Livingston's question. Instead he threw it open for discussion through comments. So I found it interesting that, after an hour and a half had elapsed since his post appeared, no comments had accumulated. Are Arts Beat readers really that uninterested in the question? Have they grown tired of it because it has already been discussed to death over water coolers or in concert hall lobbies?

One problem may be that the question actually unpacks into two questions:

  1. Does classical music need saving?
  2. Can salvation be achieved through glitz?

From a historical point of view, Tovey demonstrated that the second question hardly needs asking. What we would now call "serious music" has been grist for the mill of "press bureaus" for as long as they have existed; and, from Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, we know that "critical assaults" (to borrow the phrase from Slonimsky's subtitle) preceded the institutionalization of the press as we now know it. Like it or not, public opinion rules, which is why Jacques Offenbach should be remembered for turning Public Opinion into the central character of his opera Orphée aux Enfers (which I have always preferred translating as Orpheus Goes to Hell). Notwithstanding Brüno's scathing exposé of what some people will do to get their children (or themselves) in the spotlight, I doubt that any institutions of serious music would still be with us without the efforts of those press bureaus.

The trickier question is whether public opinion feels the institutions of serious music are worth saving. Ironically, even though I live in a city that lacks its own radio station for the serious listener (as opposed to those who simply want a higher-class level of background music), I think that even the first question is not worth posing. Serious music is part of our environment, and I do not see its future as being in jeopardy. Even many of those for whom it is not preferred listening seem to recognize it for what it is and acknowledge the value of institutions such as Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House. This was particularly evident when I was doing my "Great Recession" coverage from, and I realized how much interest there was in opportunities to enjoy serious music on a tight budget.

In other words Wakin may not be getting any comments because both he and Livingston are asking the wrong question. The real question is:

Why am I not getting as much attention as Dudamel?

Some of the answers to that question clearly have nothing to do with music, and that is ground that those who implicitly want to ask this question fear to tread. If Dudamel is currently doing well in the spotlight, it is because he understands "spotlight rules" (even when they involve getting enthusiastic about Gustav Mahler while being interviewed by Andy Garcia sitting there looking like he neither knows nor cares who Mahler was) as well as he understands his performance technique. If he can get people to listen to Mahler under conditions as adverse as that television interview (which seems to have been the case, at least in the world of iTunes), then more power to him! After all, one day he may be able to do the same for former Los Angeles resident Arnold Schoenberg!

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